“I’m [x candidate], and I approve this message.” So conclude several advertisements for presidential hopefuls. In the midst of an election year, we hear the word approved frequently.
Today we arrive at the second use of the word “study” in the New Testament. It’s found in 2 Timothy 3:15 and states, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Approved has the idea of “being genuine on the basis of testing, approved (by test), tried and true” (BDAG). As a teacher, I inform my students what will make their papers properly acceptable. I provide rubrics, detailing the specifications for an A paper. If a student follows assignment directions, adheres to grammatical and stylistic rules, and otherwise carefully proofreads, he will receive a good score.
God is clear that our works as believers will one day be tested. First Corinthians 3:13 says, “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” Often, as I read Revelation, I am reminded of Him whose “eyes [are] as a flame of fire” (Rev. 19:12). Will one glance from this God, who Habakkuk 1:13 says is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” test our works in an instant? How the judgment will occur is not for us to know in detail, but that we will be judged should motivate us to carefully prepare ourselves for that day.
The word for study used in this verse is the Greek spoudazo, meaning "to do something with intense effort and motivation--to work hard, to do one's best, to endeavor" (Louw-Nida). After salvation, we ought apply ourselves with great diligence to all of God’s commands. While it is the Spirit within us that yields fruit, our submission to His leadership makes such fruit possible. Romans 13:14 explains—“But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” The message of this verse is powerful, for it reminds us of our very significant responsibility not to yield to the flesh with its lusts. Ephesians 4:27 commands, “Neither give place to the devil.” Allowing any part of our lives to be an entry point for fleshly lusts or giving Satan a foothold in any area will greatly hinder spiritual power in our lives. And we most definitely need the Spirit’s enablement to live in a way that is “approved unto God.” Practically speaking, we all have habits to build, ways of life to change, and a mindset needed to inform of spiritual truths.
We are to be workmen, diligently toiling for God's judgment day. As such, how we ought to labor in our study of the Scriptures, searching God's Word for ourselves! Delving into the Bible's depths by contemplative study is a must in our personal quiet time with God. One volume I found especially helpful in my own personal journey was Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks. I’m due for another reading of that volume as it’s been several years since I read the entire thing; however, Hendricks supplies many excellent ideas for personal Bible study, from word studies to studies of biblical books in their cultural and linguistic context. This resource provides an excellent overview for the person who hasn’t studied God’s Word for himself but has been relying upon being fed by others for years. How needful it is for us to investigate, as did the Bereans, the Word of God! Certainly God has given pastors and teachers to the church for our specific direction and leadership, and we need their ministry on our lives; but we must not avoid being students of God’s Word ourselves. While our elders will give account for us (Hebrews 13:17), we personally will be tried for every thing we do--and God's Word will be the standard which provides the judgment criteria! Ecclesiastes 12:14 explains, "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."
This practice of studying to be approved unto God is important, for it guarantees that shame will not be my eternal reward. Shame--that dreaded curse of sinful moments indulged and fleshly promptings heeded--will meet us if we fail in this most needed study. But faithfully executing the task of 2 Timothy 2:15 makes us workmen that "[need] not to be ashamed." I certainly don’t want to stand before Christ, chagrined at my failure to apply myself to spiritual things while on this earth! God's Word is my Heavenly rubric upon which I can rest, with a mind becoming ever more transformed by the its renewing power!
Rightly dividing—[cutting, making a proper dissection of]—the word of truth. Western Christians today know far more about trivial details concerning sports, hobbies, politics, or studies than they do about the Word of God; and yet, more important than any other subject we might analyze is Scripture, the eternal word of truth. The spiritual zeitgeist offers its own opinions on Bible study--two of them being, “You can’t possibly know just what Scripture means” and “There are a lot of gray areas.” And yet, if God has commanded us to rightly divide the word of truth, how can we possibly do so if there is no right division? If it is all up to personal opinion? Indeed, we can know what the Scripture means, and only through the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we carefully, diligently, earnestly, toilingly study can we rightly divide the Word of truth. Yes, Scripture is truth which can be rightly divided! For us to assume that Scripture’s interpretation can’t be known in many places is literally sinful, for that very idea (that no analysis can be reached, no proper dissection can be made) contradicts the revealed words of God!
And so we have the very personal command given to Timothy but applicable to us today: “Study [the way God has provided for us to prepare to meet Him after salvation] to show THYSELF [each of us will one day give account] approved unto God [the best goal], a workman [toiler] that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth [this is an attainable goal; God said it is.].”
Years ago, I was challenged to memorize Psalm 119. After starting and stopping my memory plan on this passage a few times, I picked it up again a few years ago and finally completed it. This text is full of prayers about Scripture—prayers we can offer up to God as we investigate His Word and seek to apply ourselves to it. Take, for instance, verses 35-37, which read,
“Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight. Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness. Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.”
This psalm is full of such biblical prayers, and we do well to pray texts such as these as we enter into our own quiet time with God. In reality, submitting ourselves to God’s Bible study plan is a very real part of our own spiritual growth. Seeking to earnestly and diligently cry after knowledge illustrates our dependence upon God's illumination in our lives.
We know recipes by heart because we’ve followed them so often. We know the preferences and dislikes of those about us because we spend time with them. In a similar way, we can know our God when we obey Him. Let us then give ourselves in prompt and earnest effort to be approved unto God! May this motive clarify the aim of all our studies, the theme of all our endeavors, the crux of all our earnestness! “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth"--2 Timothy 3:15.